Remembering Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Before the summer of 1993, Nancy Cook felt a lot of things.

Unfulfilled. Unsure.  Frustrated.

Yet, she had so much. She lived in the epicenter of cool that was Seattle in the 90s.  She had a 3,400 square foot house, closets full of great clothes and a secure job.

But, she was trapped in an unsatisfying existence and discovering her corporate career wasn’t giving her the joy and service she was craving. She began to investigate a change in scenery, a big change.

She told her boss that she was taking a month-long leave of absence and then bought an airline ticket and headed to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal.

As a hard-working American, Nancy could have easily chosen a secluded nice hotel as her accommodation. Instead, she opted to stay at the downtown YWCA and every day walked through grinding and unsettling poverty.

Overwhelming is how Nancy describes it.

“A dead dog would stay for weeks on the street before it was picked up and discarded. The decay and the smell would get stronger every day. Children literally would sleep on the sidewalk.  Beggars were everywhere.  A 6 foot blue tarp would act as a home for a big family. I can still see the women peeking out from behind the plastic holding their babies.”

It was July 1993, and Nancy traded the familiar of the Pacific Northwest for something she had never experienced before. As one of Mother Teresa’s international volunteers at the Missionaries of Charity she had joined a fight against extreme abject poverty.

On her first day, she walked to the mission and met with one of the Sisters. As Nancy handed the Sister her passport, she saw Mother Teresa. The Sister encouraged Nancy to go speak to her.

“She was sitting at a picnic table speaking to an Italian family. I slid in to join the conversation,” remembered Nancy.  “She asked me my name.  I told her, ‘I’m Nancy and I came here to volunteer.’ I’m not one to be overly impressed by celebrities or movie stars,” she explained.  “However, there is something to be said about being so close to such a well-known, influential and self-sacrificing female leader.”

On Sunday, September 4, more than two decades after this encounter, Mother Teresa was declared Saint Teresa of Calcutta by Pope Francis.  As thousands of pilgrims, including world leaders gathered in St. Peter’s Square to witness the canonization ceremony of the “saint of the gutters” Nancy recalled her month-long experience.

Nancy worked at Prem Dan a place where developmentally disabled adults are housed.   In English, Prem Dan means “a gift of love”

A very rudimentary shelter, Nancy’s day would mean trying to give dignity to others where humanity had failed them. She would ease into a routine which became an experience of lifetime. Mass at 6 a.m. at the Motherhouse, followed by breakfast and then she would disperse with 8 to 10 other volunteers to help the poorest of the poor. She would bath them, take them clean gowns, take them out for clean air, and scrub the floors all in an effort to ease suffering.

Nancy recalls how the mission-style concrete floor was difficult on her knees as she knelt to pray, but Mother Teresa showed no apparent difficulty. She had a certain spot everyday where she prayed. After her death, a statue of the now Saint Teresa of Calcutta was placed in that usual spot as a way to fill the physical void. Mother Teresa was not even five feet tall but her impact on others was enormous.

When Nancy returned home she went to work at a Catholic church. She then began work on her Masters of Divinity from the Jesuits–Seattle University.  Her post graduate work in liturgy and ritual would take her to Notre Dame.

Nancy returned to Kolkata three more times. But, it was the very first one that led her down her new path of Catholic health care and spiritual ministry.

She now holds the title of the Regional Director of Spiritual Ministry for CHRISTUS Health’s South East Texas region. She is proud that the region has a strong Catholic Identity. The hospital scored over the 90th percentile among Catholic hospitals on the independent Catholic Identity Matrix Survey. This survey let’s CHRISTUS know how well it has embedded  essential principles like holistic care, respect, participation, stewardship, communion with the Church and solidarity with those who live in poverty into practice.

“One thing that Mother Teresa was concerned about was this America’s spiritual poverty. I don’t feel like I need to go overseas.  Right now, there’s a lot for me to do here.”